Fall-Winter 2008: My Parents’ Funerals: Then and Now

by George Schmidt

My father died in 1962 when I was 16 years old. He had married late in life, had very little insurance and was receiving a small pension which was immediately stopped by his former employer. He left his widow, my brother who was a first classman (senior) at the United States Naval Academy, and me. To state the obvious, we were not left “well off” financially at his passing.

It was his desire to have a “minimal” funeral with a closed casket, no public viewing and to be cremated. He had been a leader of our Episcopal church — senior warden, vestryman, treasurer, building committee chairman — and in these positions, he had had a great deal of contact with local businessmen. One of these men was the director of a funeral home located just a few doors away from the church. The funeral director was also an acquaintance of Dad’s with whom he had played golf. He was fully aware of our family’s circumstances.

We naturally turned to this man to help with Dad’s requested arrangements. To put it mildly, we were completely ripped off. I still can remember the sales pitch in the “showroom” describing what my Dad would have wanted and certainly deserved for a full service, embalming, and an expensive casket that wound up being burned within a week. And of course, as we were at our most vulnerable, we succumbed to it all. I don’t remember the total bill, but I believe it was well into four figures — and, remember, this was 1962. Some months later, when the realization of what had happened sank into us, it left a distinct impression on my mother, my brother and me that has not been altered or ameliorated in the 46 years since Dad’s passing.

As a consequence, all of us swore to each other that our funerals would be different — simple, dignified and with a minimum of financial burden on those we left behind.  So I joined the Funeral Consumer Alliance and I am most happy and grateful that I did. My mother recently passed away — in her 99th year, God bless her! — after a brief period of at-home hospice care. I called FCA on how to effect the kind of funeral we desired. My call was answered promptly and I was steered in a direction that proved to be exactly what we wanted as a family. Rather than a local funeral home, we selected a New Haven service which provided us with a direct cremation that was handled with professional competence and a caring, sensitive attitude. The services and expenses were fully described at the initial meeting and exactly matched the final invoice. We were able to save at least $1,000 over the closest “minimum” price that was advertised by local funeral homes — something that would have made my mother extremely happy!

There is a sequel; we prepared a 325 word obituary and submitted it electronically to our local newspaper. The paper called and said that the price to publish the obituary would be $286.48! I was astounded and my mother would have been appalled — and even the woman who called me apologized for the price, noting that she was only the messenger! But I quickly figured it out: a newspaper requires that a funeral director verify a death and there is an implicit alliance to encourage spending on all facets of death. When you receive your invoice for services from the funeral home, which could be $6,000, $8,000 or $10,000, you are unlikely to note a $300 charge for an obituary. Needless to say, there was no obituary for my mother printed, As someone who lived through the Great Depression as the sole support of her widowed mother, her sister and herself, she would have been more than pleased with this decision too.